India Day 7: Guilt and Papayas

So. We get up at the f'n CRACK, throw on our clothes & packs, and stumble through the streets of Pushkar in efforts to meet Ramesh at the 6:30 am meeting time.

While stumbling, it occurred to us that, this early in the morning, we were less likely of being harrassed by priestouts at the ghats, and took a quick detour to visit one of the larger ghats. And so were 15 minutes late to meet Ramesh.

Which normally wouldn't have been a problem.

Turns out there were some seriously crossed wires going on. See, we told him that we'd call him if we wanted to get picked up later than 6:30. No call meant "6:30 A-OK!" We thought.

But HE thought that we were going to call to check in regardless. So he got there at 6 AM, and when we showed up, boy was he pissed.

Once we got on the road, he really let us have it. He told us all the cautionary tales about Pushkar, dangerous land of backpacker grifts.

There was the couple who went to a crooked guest house (run, in Ramesh's telling, by Muslims, of course) and got robbed, drugs planted on them, some such. Then there's the infamous "Bang Lassi" story, in which a hapless femalie is given a drugged yoghurt drink. Think "roofie." We later heard the story of a friend of a fellow traveler who did have one of those, but it was by choice (like an Amsterdam "space cake."). Then there was the guy who got dope planted on him by his guest house, so he had to pay off the cops (and the guest house got a piece).

Or there are the stories of Pushkar men who work in the shops & restaurants, who seduce & marry tourist women, go back to their country, then take all their money, go back to Pushkar, and start over. Beware, Ladies!

Were any of these stories true? Ramesh seemed to think so. But more important, he said that when a professional guide is in charge of tourists that go missing, the Guide gets arrested for losing track of them! And since cars weren't allowed in Pushkar, he couldn't check on us. So we felt bad. We apologized and in return got stonewalled by Ramesh. Which didn't suck.

Regardless, it was a long drive to our next stop, Udaipur.

If you've ever looked at Udaipur on a map, you know that it's out of the way on the standard Rajastan loop--5-7 hours south of Pushkar, 5-7 hours south of Jodphur. But the Lonely Planet said the lake palace was amazing, and other travelers told us that it was "romantic and european," so we put it on our itinerary.

Because of the length of the drive, it was late in the day when we asked Ramesh if we could stop for lunch. There weren't any of his beloved tourist trap commission places along the way, so we ended up at a little roadside stand just outside the hills surrounding Udaipur.

We sat down on woven flats to eat a couple of very spicy dishes with Parantha (bread), sitting with Ramesh as he told jokes about us in Hindi to the men at the stand. Everyone was laughing but N & I.

But as we ate, a bunch of girls gathered at the stairs leading behind the stand. They were the wives, mothers, and (mostly) daughters of the men who ran the place. They looked at us a giggled a while. Because, of course, we are white and foreign and therefore hilarious.

Finally one of them said something to one of the men, who said something to Ramesh, who passed it to us: Could they take Natacha to their home? It was right behind & just below the stand. Natacha agreed and went with these 7 or so females. 20 minutes later, she returned, carrying a huge green papaya. Turns out they'd shown her the kitchen, and were just generally mezmerized with her. We stayed a while longer to talk with them (via Ramesh) and take some photos.

Natacha, kind soul that she is, worried about not having any gifts to given them in return. So she dug into her pack and gave them hair chopsticks and cough drops. Hey, what would YOU have done?

Finally heading into Udaipur, Ramesh offered once again to find us a place to stay. Since we still felt guilty about the Pushkar thing, we let him lead the way. He took us to a place that the Lonely Planet did mention, a lovely hotel with a swimming pool that was roughly double what we'd dream of paying. Big "R" was in top form.

After getting lost a few times in the center of Udaipur old town, we located a place ourselves and sent him on his way so we could spend two Ramesh-less nights in Udaipur.

We spent that first afternoon walking through the narrow, crowded streets and sitting on the Ghat overlooking the lake. You can see the golden palace in the lake, an immense white structure immortalized in the film "Octopussy." We found a fancy hotel with a rooftop restaurant, ordered the cheap dishes, and watched the sun set over the lake, the twin palaces, a mosque, and a very busy day.

India Day 6: Huckster Ghats and Hippie Ghettos

I have discovered that no matter where we are in the world--or how FREAKING hot it is in our room--nothing puts me to sleep faster than listening to people talk on my MP3 player. So far my talk of choice is comedy--I downloaded the Comedy Death Ray collection before we left--something like two hours of mostly-great standup for the price of lunch at In N Out. But I had no idea I'd be listening to it so often. You can only listen to Paul F. Tompkins do his bee fetish routine so many times.

So I'm frantically downloading as many talkshow & comedy podcasts as I can shove over this Internet Cafe's broadband connex. Jimmy Pardo, do not fail me as a sleep aid or I swear I will geld you.

Anyways, the long download times let me get into a really interesting destination on our trip: Pushkar.

We were picked up at our Jaipur guest house by Ramesh, who was noticeably grumpy, likely because we stayed at a place that was actually comfortable and popular, and therefore had no need to pay him a commission for taking us there. Good. We piled in and headed to Pushkar, a place we were told was a very spiritual one: 130 temples surrounding a lake in the middle of desert. not on our orig itinerary but sounded great. Ramesh thought that we'd stay in Amer, the larger city outside of Pushkar, and got a bit pissy when we told him,no, we wanted to stay in Pushkar proper. Obviously he wanted to get us into a commission hotel. obviously we were itching to be rid of him for a day and a night.

He drove us as far has he could into Pushkar (cars aren't allowed there) and we agreed to meet him at the same spot at 6:30, and that we'd call him on his cel if we wanted to leave later. As soon as we left the car, we were set upon by one priest after another. Or rather, "priests." See, Pushkar is filled with these guys who try to give you ceremonial flowers to throw into Pushkar's famous Ghats, then lead you through the ritual, then ask for a donation. Really annoying. and of course Ramesh did nothing to ward them away from us. Y'know, like a guide is paid to do.

So we shook him, and them, off and headed down the main drag, getting touted by more priests, auto-rickshaw drivers, guest houses, clothing, shops, etc. every step of the way. It was like we were back in Delhi. It was hot and annoying but we eventually found our way to the guesthouse that was recco'd to us by a French woman we met at the Pearl Palace. It was a quiet (yay!) cheap oasis from the Pushkar chaos.

Once we got a little space, we noticed that the town was full of backpackers, all making themselves comfortable as only backpackers do: eating jaffles, drinking tea, trying not to look too stoned, etc. That, and the plethora of restaurants advertising Israeli food, made us realize that this was a total backpacker's ghetto. Skinny Dutch dudes in sarongs with no shirts and braided facial hair. That kind of thing. It's a place where backpackers come, and stay for days. And why not? Plenty of home-type food, cafes to hang out in, and stuff to buy. It's also a place where you can take a a course in painting, yoga, etc.

But except for the temples and the ghats, it's also a place sans culture.

The lake, and the ghats & temples that surrounded it, were peaceful & sublime, but hard to enjoy without getting touted everywhere.

we did manage to walk around the lake, even in the intense heat.

At the opposite side we met a charming israeli couple, who confirmed the Israelis-are-everywhere-in-India syndrome. After their army service, they go travelling. He said, that these young, newly free kids settle in somewhere and change it to suit them. "Well," I replied, "If you can do it to the desert, you can do it anywhere, eh?" We had a good laugh at that.

We also met a crazy dutch guy who talked in travel-vernacular non-sequiturs and proved to us that too much solo travel isn't necessarily a good thing.

Eventually we got back to the town center and took a yoga class. Just us in a room full of open shutters. He took some time to explain yoga was, but his accent was so think I didn't get all of it. I gathered it was mostly about balance- each position has it's active & passive muscles, etc.

By The end of the practice, the wind really picked up outside. The lights went out so the teacher lit the practice with his cel phone. Then all the shutters started slamming open & shut. It was really interesting to have the elements outside be so active during our session.

When we finished, we walked into the courtyard, which the yoga place shared with a large temple. Which was holding a festival of some sort. Which infolved everyone pushig a huge wooden idol on a wheeled altar around the courtyard while the people sang, held torches near it, and banged drums. Facinating.

The wind continued to pick up and then, rain. Then a blackout--everything on the streets, dark.

WE found a restaurant that was serving despite that, a rooftop place atop a four-story building. They served Mexican food, played Bob Marley. One of Pushkar's many hippie backpacker joints. After we ordered, the wind REALLY picked up. So much that the 15-foot-high sign outside the restaurant broke a tether and threatened to fall four stories to the ground. AS it swung to & fro, we heard screams from the ground. Fortunately the staff grabbed it and brought it inside in time, propping it up on the wall near us.

We and the other customers were ushered into a room indside the building and served there. People kept coming in, and eventually the room was crammed with Canadian college jocks, mixed-race couples in flowing fabrics, middle-aged women talking about their side businesses selling fabrics and jewlery, even the dutch guy with the hair showed up. It was a real microcosm of backpacker culture.

Later that night, when the lights were back on everywhere but the streets, I did something stupid. After trying to upload my photos at a cyber-cafe and failing--until midnight, mind you--I walked home, after all the stores were closed, which meant I had to walk the 4-5 blocks back through the dirt streets in pitch darkness. I tried to use my camera flash to light my way (see photos below)...which was just as stupid. I stepped into at least one puddle, and at some point a dog barked at me and aI almost shat myself. So that was Pushkar.